The atom truly is our friend, Robert Stone argues in pro-nuclear power documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise’

April 4, 2013

Shortly before the screening of his new documentary Thursday morning, Robert Stone took the podium to note that his first movie had opposed nuclear power. In that regard, his personal journey has served as something of a model for those of the five individuals he features in “Pandora’s Promise,” a beautifully shot and well-paced feature-length movie that makes a powerful case for embracing nuclear power.

“Pandora’s Promise” is centered on one journalist and four committed environmental activists; all, like the director himself, opposed nuclear power for much of their adult lives. This is partly because of atomic energy’s early link to nuclear weapons, which devastated two Japanese cities and were test-fired some 2,000 times over the years, one interviewee tells us.

Three disasters involving nuclear plants — Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979; Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986; and Fukushima in Japan last year — also helped to reinforce public leeriness toward atomic energy. This tendency was embraced whole-heartedly by environmentalists and stoked by popular culture; Stone shows clips of “The China Syndrome,“ which was released shortly before Three Mile Island, and “The Simpsons,” in which the cartoon boob Homer Simpson examines diagrams and wails, “Who ever thought that a nuclear reactor would be so complicated?!” (Interestingly, that film, which starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, came out 12 days before the Pennsylvania plant ran into trouble.)

These mishaps were clearly frightening, and widespread ignorance and misconceptions about radiation did nothing to salve public fears about nuclear energy.

But Stone reassures viewers about the safety of nuclear energy using several strategies. One is examining the surprisingly low death toll of nuclear reactors. By far the largest catastrophe, at the shockingly under-designed Chernobyl, killed 56 people. (No one has died due to commercial nuclear reactors in this country.)

While the disaster in the Ukraine prompted an enormous evacuation, and consequently the loss of tremendous amounts of property, much as at Fukushima, comprehensive studies have shown no increase in birth defects because of the 1986 meltdown, and only some 4,000 lives are believed to have been shortened because of radiation. (These figures presumably would be much higher without the so-called exclusion zone.) Preliminary indications are that the Japanese reactor problems will have an infinitesimal health effect, we’re told.

By contrast, air pollution from power plants burning coal, which is both the most common and fastest-growing fuel for energy generation, kill 13,000 Americans and 3 million people worldwide each year! By contrast, only wind power is safer than nuclear generation; solar panels are manufactured by way of a very toxic process, American environmental Mark Shellenberger tells Stone.

While radiation can be frightening, it is also natural. Stone incorporates several shots of a yellow radiation detector showing natural background radiation levels in Los Angeles (0.09 microsieverts), New York City (0.13), New Hampshire (0.3), in an airplane over the Pacific Ocean (2.20, because the higher altitude means there is less atmosphere to absorb solar radiation), and at Guarapari Beach in Brazil (30.81), where a man is buried to his neck in radioactive sand that he somehow believes has therapeutic properties. By contrast, one reading at the malfunctioned Chernobyl reactor shows 3.62 microsieverts.

Perhaps more to the point, Stone includes several paeans to new-generation reactor designs that are far safer than not only Chernobyl, which was buffered from the outside world by a structure environmentalist Gwyneth Cravens compares to a Quonset hut, but than the much more fortified but still outdated Fukushima as well. Stone displays footage and descriptions of 1986 tests at a then-novel federal reactor in Idaho’s Argonne National Laboratory. These exercises demonstrated that a catastrophic meltdown, even with the loss of power or coolant, was impossible because of safeguards engineered into the system.

In fact, there are plant designs that are capable of recycling their own fuel virtually without end, and future generations should be able to make energy out of spent fuel that is currently stored as long-lived toxic waste. As Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand puts it, “That looks very much like a renewable resource.”

In short, quite literally, the next generation of nuclear reactors won’t be our grandfathers’ or even our fathers’ atomic power plants. (The point is further driven home when Brand waxes lyrical about America purchasing decommissioned Soviet and Russian nuclear weapons and using them to power the very cities they were once intended to destroy.)

“Pandora’s Promise” also reassures its audience by having Shellenberger sing the praises of France, which in a short amount of time scaled up a nuclear program that now provides four-fifths of that nation’s power. British environmental activist Mark Lynas notes that the French produce five tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year, half the rate of neighboring Germany, which will presumably see its tally rise as the Germans move away from nuclear following the Fukushima’s radiation release.

And why is all of this necessary? Why can’t we continue to develop renewable energy and to burn coal (assuming, of course, that we are untroubled by its deadly toll) without embracing nuclear power? Here too Stone methodically covers the bases, explaining that renewable sources, while important, are neither prodigious nor reliable enough to sustain modern society; that power-driven Western society is the only possible way to provide a civilized life to many hundreds of millions who now suffer in poverty; that the Earth’s population and its energy needs will rise quickly and significantly, even with all reasonable conservation efforts; and that our current strategy of burning fossil fuels is introducing dangerous changes instability into the planet’s climate.

Because Stone lays out his argument so carefully, and because his primary voices — Brand, Cravens, Lynas, Shellenberger and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former nuclear skeptic Richard Rhodes — represent the environmental equivalent of Nixon visiting China, “Pandora’s Promise” amounts to an incredibly persuasive case for nuclear energy.

Perhaps the only discouraging chord the documentary strikes comes when Rhodes suggests that America’s Democratic political party is aligned against nuclear, mainly because Republicans are for it. But even this is offset by Shellenberger’s expressed hope that, in contrast to their forebears, an up and coming generation of environmentalists will be able to view atomics in the proper context.

Stone, Shellenberger and company put forth a clear, enticing and important vision in “Pandora’s Promise.” It’s one that, like the film itself, deserves a wide airing and thorough discussion.


One Response to “The atom truly is our friend, Robert Stone argues in pro-nuclear power documentary ‘Pandora’s Promise’”

  1. Rainer Klute Says:

    I’d really love to see that film (and see others see that film), but since I am here in mad old Germany, I guess chances are low. 😦

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